Agile Strategy Implementation

Wooden letter blocks spell out the word agile.

The Challenge

Much like GSA experienced three years ago, the Management Information Systems Office (MISO) organization at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had a vision, a crazy deadline, and the need to change and change fast. MISO is responsible for developing, maintaining, and managing a variety of enterprise business systems across the CDC. A strategic planning process launched last year laid out a vision called MISO 2020 that would transform the organization into a Center for Excellence for enterprise business solutions. After what could best be described as a bumpy year of supporting internal customers, the MISO leadership team committed to the MISO 2020 vision. More significantly, the team committed to address some of the long-standing management and technology issues that would prevent MISO from being successful for fiscal year 2015 in the nine months left in the fiscal year.

The Solution
A word cloud highlighting Agile- and Scrum-related software development terms

Starting in December of 2014, MISO leaders identified 12 key initiatives that would set the organization on the path to MISO 2020 by making foundational changes to people, processes, and technology. Long-time MISO managers and staff expressed some concerns that the MISO 2020 transformation would suffer from a lack of focus and determination as had occurred with previous efforts. To help keep the transformation process on track, MISO leaders decided to break up the initiatives into one month sprints. Each month, the MISO leadership team—including initiative leads—come together for a half-day review of the previous month’s minimal viable products and to plan for the upcoming sprint. The following day, a smaller group of MISO leaders review the backlog of work products and the sprint plans for the upcoming month to review available resources and ensure appropriate balance of work to resources.

The Payoff

After six months of planning and sprint reviews, MISO leaders and initiative leads had a brief retrospective to catalog what was working, what was not working, and what should change. Below are selected findings from that retrospective review:

  • MISO is making substantial progress closing gaps and solving long-standing problems
  • MISO is benefiting from the extended time in discussions in the Sprint Review Meetings and with people speaking up
  • The team is enjoying a sprint approach that provides a focus on completion
  • Participants are learning a lot about the entire organization since the sprint process requires more coordination across the organization
  • The team is focusing on getting things done and leveraging the work in one initiative in other initiatives
  • MISO is achieving more accountability to each other by forcing action and challenging colleagues to “keep up”
    An example of a sprint plan being updated with Post-Its on a white board during a daily scrum meeting for agile software development

The Path Forward

As much as the team generally liked using sprints to organize and track progress for MISO 2020, there is a desire for changes to the process:

  • Balancing Sprint work and “day jobs” is very demanding
  • Getting clarity on whether on whether it is acceptable to report on “works in progress”
  • Collaborating across the sprint initiative teams is very time consuming
  • Shrinking the list of sprint items might ultimately help sustain MISO progress over the long run

There is no doubt that applying agile principles has helped MISO with a very productive start to the implementation of its MISO 2020 strategy. The structure and pace of the monthly sprint review process has helped establish a “battle rhythm” for implementing strategic plan for our organization. While there have been early successes, there is still much to learn and no doubt our application of agile principles will evolve as we learn more. The findings from the recent “hot wash” of the sprint process highlighted enough benefits of using sprints to implement the strategy document that we are already making plans to continue this approach for next fiscal year.

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